Nine months earlier, Saturday, June 7
LAURA HAD A GOOD FEELING ABOUT TODAY. A DELICIOUS START-OF-THE-SUMMER sensation had embraced her the minute she opened her eyes. She was up and dressed before it was even seven-thirty on an already-hot Saturday in June. Walking along the landing to Daniel's bedroom, she listened for sounds of him stirring, but the room that they kept clean and welcoming while he was at medical school was silent. He was still asleep, hardly surprising, seeing as he'd come home long after she'd gone to bed the last couple of nights. Daniel had been home from university for two whole days now, but she'd not yet seen him. Work was at a pressure point and she left early in the mornings and he was out when she came home. Catching up with old friends, no doubt. She was envious of those conversations, hungry for information. She wanted to hear everything, soak it all up, enjoy the excitement she felt for him just starting out in his professional life, and relish the summer with him before he went off to do his hospital training. Today was their day, no last-minute urgent changes to the drama series she was producing for ITV that kept her in an edit suite until nine o'clock at night, no meetings, just a day together, mother and son.
She opened the door a crack, the smile ready on her face. The room was flooded with sunlight, the curtains wide and the bed made. She stopped there for a moment, confused, then realized he must have gone down to make breakfast. Glad that he was already up and about like her, she hurried excitedly down the stairs of her Kensington house and burst into the kitchen. It was empty. She looked around, a little lost, a pang of anxiety fluttering through her. Then she saw a piece of notepaper on the counter. Scrawled on it was a message: In the basement. Will be HUNGRY! She smiled. He knew she hated it to be called the basement; the word rang with a false modesty. It was a huge addition that went vertical, instead of horizontal, and had cost her husband a fortune. Still, it was no worse than what he called it. Howard had wanted a "den," he'd said, and she'd almost laughed at the absurd understatement, except that she knew he wanted his den in order to get away from her. He'd suggested it quite casually one night and said it would be useful, somewhere for "either of them to get a little space," and she'd struggled to hold back the astonishment and hurt. They hardly saw each other anyway; he was always at the office or golf or tucked away in his study. He'd then employed some very skilled and expensive builders who had dug out the earth beneath their house and filled it with a game room, a wine cellar, a garage, and a swimming pool. The neighbors had been upset with all the noise, the conveyor belts of rubble spewing out of the ground, and the general disruptive blot on the landscape. She'd been left to apologize, but at least it had been temporary and nothing like the steel magnate's four-story subterranean bunker down the road, which had caused his neighbors' front pillars to crack.
Taking the elevator down to the pool, she waited for the hum of the motors to stop and then stepped into a twilight of lapis lazuli blue. Cutting a frothy swathe through the sublit water was Daniel; as usual, the sight of him made her heart soar. She walked to the top of the deep end just as he was finishing his length and knelt down to the water's edge.
He caught sight of her and stopped, water pouring off his strong shoulders as he hoisted himself effortlessly out of the water and threw his arms around her. She squealed in admonishment, as he knew she would do, grinning and holding her tight; and then unable to resist, she hugged him back.
Feeling the wet seep through, she pushed him away and brushed at the dark patches on her yellow shift dress.
"That was not funny," she said, smiling.
"Just giving my old mum a hug."
"Less of the 'old.'" In Laura's head, she was still twenty-five and often looked at other women, fascinated by their encroaching middle age before realizing she was the same generation. It amused her that she was stuck in some sort of age amnesia; amused her still further when a look in the mirror confirmed that although she looked good for her age, she most definitely was not twenty-five.
"Come on, all the boys fancy you, and you know it."
She smiled. It was true she enjoyed the flirtatious company of Daniel's friends, the way they came around and leaned lazily on her breakfast bar, addressing her as "Mrs. C" and telling her how good her French toast was. It had been a while since she'd seen them.
"How are Will and Jonny?"
"Don't know." Daniel started to dry himself with one of the plush towels that Mrs. Moore changed three times a week, regardless of whether or not anyone had used them.
"But didn't you see them yesterday?"
"They work," he said flippantly, disappearing around the side of a carved wooden screen, "already out there changing the world."
"In insurance? And I'm aware they work, I was talking about the evenings. Where have you been, then, the last couple of nights, if not with the boys?"
There was a silence from behind the screen and Laura didn't see that Daniel was smiling, a secret smile of reflection. He'd meant to keep it to himself for a bit longer, but suddenly felt the urge to tell someone. Little by little, he would let out some, not all, of the details, enjoying reliving them as he did so.
"Hey!" he said as Laura poked her head round.
She stood, arms crossed, waiting for him to answer her question. "You're perfectly decent." She watched fondly as he pulled on shorts and a T- shirt, proud that her genes had produced such a good-looking young man. Of course, Howard had had a part in it, but their son took after his mother in looks. Same height, same thick, wavy blond hair, and strong bone structure. Instead of giving her the answer he knew she wanted, he smiled cheekily as he made his way to the elevator.
She took a sharp intake of breath. "Don't you push that button."
"Are you coming?"
Laura followed and pretend-pinched his earlobe. "I'm going to get it out of you."
The lift started to rise. "Ow! Can I take you for brunch?"
She lifted her eyebrows. "It requires an announcement?"
The doors opened and he took her hand and led her out and through the hall into the expansive oak-and-granite kitchen. "Just want to treat my mum."
"You old charmer. But before we go, give me a clue. I couldn't stand the anticipation." She stood firm.
He poured himself a voluminous glass of juice from the fridge. "I've been looking for an apartment. You know, for when I start the hospital training program."
She sighed. "You're sure I can't persuade you to move back home?"
"Ah, Mum ... apart from the holidays, and not all of those, I haven't lived at home for five years." It wasn't that Daniel led a louche social life, he just enjoyed his privacy as any twenty-three-year-old male would, and didn't want to spend the next two years living under his childhood roof, basement pool or not.
"Okay, okay. So, apartment hunting. At night?"
He grinned. "Just meeting with the agent."
It took a moment and then it clicked. "A girl?"
"She's very thorough. Knows exactly what I like."
"You say it like I've never dated before."
"But this one's special," she said decisively.
"How do you know?"
"Well, you've seen her the last two nights, haven't you?"
"And only just met! Come on, spill. What's her name?"
He was amused by her enthusiasm. "Cherry."
"A fruit! Short season, select."
"She's got dark hair. ..." He held up a palm, shook his head. "I can't believe I'm saying this."
Laura clutched his hand. "No, don't stop, really. I want to hear all about her. Where's she from?"
"She is exotic! Sorry! I was joking. I'll be serious now." Laura kissed his hand contritely. "How old is she?"
"And she's a real estate agent?"
"Yes. Well, she's training at the moment. She's only recently started."
"And she works here in Kensington?"
"She wanted to sell nice houses." He heaved himself up onto the work surface. "She learned about the area by pretending to be moving here. Went to see twenty-seven flats with other agencies before going for the job. Found she could talk about the properties and the likely clientele with aplomb." He laughed. "That's what I call enterprise. And then ... quite audaciously, made up a résumé. Or at least embellished it. Made herself sound like the 'right kind of girl.'"
Laura smiled, although she was a little taken aback by Cherry's behavior. Which was silly as she had nothing to do with her work and wasn't her employer. She tapped Daniel's knee with the back of her hand. "Come on, I thought you were taking me out."
He jumped down and held out a crooked elbow. "It will be my pleasure." He wanted to treat his mum, look after her, be the son that he knew she, somewhat embarrassingly, liked to show off. They'd sit in the brasserie and she'd bask in their mutual good humor, and he knew he'd enjoy himself too. He always made time for them to be together, especially ever since he'd been aware that the relationship between his parents had little warmth. There wasn't even much in the way of companionship. His father was rarely around, as his job as partner at a large accounting firm kept him fully occupied; Daniel wanted to make up for some of the loneliness that he knew his mum felt. It had been a while since he'd seen her, which added to the guilt, the prickly discomfort of another secret. He hadn't yet told her he was cutting their day short. He was seeing Cherry again tonight.
Two days earlier
MDAY BE HAVING THE BEST OF EVERYTHING WHEN HE WAS A CHILD meant that he never yearned for anything, at least nothing that money could buy. Daniel had been bought a superb education and was clever — a fortunate combination that meant he liked school and school liked him. He'd shown a particular aptitude for science, which had delighted his parents and professors, particularly when he'd been invited to study medicine at Cambridge. To complement his academic cultivation, he'd had the holidays that were considered necessary: He'd learned to ski, to dive, and to appraise the world. He'd done all of this with an enjoyment and interest that had reassured and pleased his parents; but despite being lavished with everything a boy could want, Daniel had somehow managed to remain unspoiled. His response to the Great Wall of China was one of genuine wonder, and he was grateful for the comfort of the first- class flight home. However, when he'd arrived at Heathrow, he'd jumped on the tube rather than call his father's driver to come and pick him up. His laid-back attitude extended to clothes and he grew perversely attached to items that had long since passed their best. Once, he'd retrieved a pair of briefs from the trash that Mrs. Moore had thrown out on one of his trips home from university. He'd then hidden them, holes and all, in the side pocket of his holdall. Those briefs were old friends and he would not be parted from them.
And so it was that he set foot in a real estate agency on one of the most expensive roads in London that represented some of the most exclusive properties, while he was dressed in a faded T-shirt and a pair of cargo shorts with holes where the seams met at the pockets.
"I need a flat," he said, smiling to the hesitant girl who politely approached him as he came in the door.
"To buy or rent?"
"Buy." And he was directed to the back where a dark head was bent forward over a large, gleaming wooden desk, scrutinizing some papers.
"Can I help you?" When she looked up and smiled her client-welcoming smile, he felt himself respond in kind. Suddenly the job of flat hunting seemed a whole lot more pleasant. She had a cap of straight raven hair, which danced as it moved around her face.
"I'm looking for a flat."
Her eyes were dark too, deep pools with fathomless depths. In them, he caught the mental calculations as she subtly took in his frayed shorts and T-shirt.
"How many bedrooms? Did you have a particular location in mind?"
"Two bedrooms," he decided instantly, thinking the second would be useful as a study. He hadn't had much time to think about what he needed as he'd driven back from Cambridge early that morning. Wandering around his parents' house, he'd been aware of the likely pressure from his mother to stay if he became too comfortable. It was best to start the ball rolling straight away; it wouldn't be fair to let her get her hopes up.
"And location?" Once again, he detected suspicion about what he was doing here. No streets around Kensington and Chelsea were cheap, but some were prohibitively expensive. He knew he didn't look the sort to have a couple of million to spend. Which in theory, he didn't.
Her face smiled tightly. Irritated, but trying to remain professional. "There's no such street in the area."
"God no, I wasn't winding you up." He pointed to her nameplate, black letters on brass background, and smiled. "You should be in an agency in a village in the Cotswolds or something."
She stared at him long and hard, then turned her iPad to face him. "Depending on your price category, we have four properties that match what you're looking for. This one is just two minutes from Knightsbridge station —"
"I'll go and see it."
She paused and tapped her screen. "Okay. This next one —"
"I'll see that too."
"But I haven't even told you about it."
He enjoyed watching her uncertainty about how to take him. No doubt, most people who came in here were stuffed with the importance of how a property should be, how it should rightfully fit their needs. They probably put great energy and effort into finding the perfect place, something that seemed to Daniel a colossal waste of time. The quicker he got it settled, the better. "And the others."
"In a hurry?"
"I should imagine for the price, they're all pretty nice? How much are they, anyway?"
"These particular properties range from between two and a half and four million —"
"And, yes, they're exceptional —"
"There you are then. I need somewhere to live and I'm sure I'd be extremely fortunate to live in any of those you've selected. So, shall we go and take a look?"
Her hands fluttered over the screen. "I need to make appointments."
"Later today then?" He smiled. "I'm sure I'll be your easiest client. I'll have one picked by teatime. It is you showing me around, isn't it?"
She flicked her eyes across him, reassuring herself she hadn't just encountered a psycho. "Yes," she said firmly, "it is."
* * *
This time, he was smarter, she noticed. Since he'd walked into her office this morning, he'd changed into a pair of navy chinos and a light blue shirt. So far, he'd followed her obediently around the first-floor apartment with little comment. She waved a hand toward the ground. "As you can see, there are wooden floors throughout, and one of the benefits of this property is, of course, the hallway."
He gazed up and down. "What's so special about it?"
"It's not so much that it's special. It's the fact it's there."
He thought: In what world was a hallway considered a perk when you were paying two and a half million pounds? He didn't want to offend her by saying this, and, after all, he was guilty by association. He was the one looking around it.
"And this is the living room," she said, indicating the room through a doorway.
He peered in. "Nice sofa. Yellow."
"Lemon," she corrected. "Of course, these furnishings will be removed on sale. The owner has left them to present the property."
"So, it's vacant?"
"Yes. And there's no chain."
"Did the owner not want the sofa at his or her new place?"
Bemused, she looked at him. "I should imagine ..."
"They bought new."
He smiled, then followed her down the covetable hallway, glancing down to see if there was anything he might be missing, but decided to concentrate on Cherry instead. He liked the way she walked, with purpose, as if she cared about where she was going and the reason for getting there. He had a feeling she might extend this determination to other parts of her life, and he found himself wanting to know more about what they might be. Just then, she turned and caught him staring at her. She stopped and folded her arms.
"The kitchen is in there." She pointed and it was obvious he was meant to go first.
"Sorry, I wasn't staring at your bum."